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Exploring Careers

How Going Online Helped This Youth Organization Pivot During the Pandemic

man taking a photograph of smoothies
A Holiday Club photography workshop.
| Dara Phillips

As a teenager growing up in London, Bisoye Babalola noticed that many of her classmates were not applying their time and talent towards achieving their fullest potential. But she knew that with a bit of guidance, these kids (and others just like them) were capable of anything.

“Working with young people is so important because they’re the next generation, and a lot of times they’re misunderstood,” says Babalola. “If you take the time to speak to them, you will see that so many are entrepreneurial.”

This observation would end up changing the course of her life.

After she graduated from De Montfort University Leicester, Babalola decided to make mentorship the centerpiece of her career. In 2017, she founded the Holiday Club, a London-based organization that aims to celebrate and encourage creativity, entrepreneurship, and wellness among adolescents ages 14 to 18, with a focus on low-income youth and ethnic minorities.

“In my experience of trying to get into the media industry, I know firsthand that the creative industry is super hard,” says Babalola, who was awarded the British Empire Medal (Civil Division) in 2019 by the Queen herself for extraordinary services to creative industries. “And I think young people, especially young Black people, need the opportunity, and I am willing to give all of my resources. Opportunities are endless, you just have to create them.”

At first, Babalola ran workshops inside schools on her own, but in 2019, students began coming to the Holiday Club directly through the website (though she does still do outreach to schools to promote the organization). All told, her work has reached more than 350 teenagers so far.

Offering Youth the Gift of Creativity

The Holiday Club offers four free programs that emphasize the tools needed to succeed in the arenas of music, theater, and film, as well as a broader course that touches upon other aspects of creative fields, from fashion styling to music marketing to set design. “Creativity gives you an outlet to express yourself more than anything,” explains Babalola. “But it also helps build confidence and helps you to critically think and assess.”

Top industry leaders are brought on to lead workshops, one-on-one sessions, and group discussions. The result? In addition to a new skill set, participants also come away with mentors and the beginnings of their very own networks. And those in the theater and film programs leave with a fully self-written, self-directed, and self-produced product—talk about a huge win.

“It is important for me to give them a realistic version of what an industry is like, so I don’t sugar coat things,” says Babalola. “I am there to support them, and I bring people on board who work within the industry and give them advice and show them how to navigate.”

That being said, even teenagers who don’t plan to pursue a creative field professionally still greatly benefit from the organization. “If they don’t want to be an actor or a filmmaker, the program can still help instill confidence and give insight into what is available to them,” she says.

a group of teenagers pose with smoothies they made during a wellness workshop
During a Holiday Club wellness workshop, teenagers made smoothies. | Dara Phillips

Course Correcting During COVID-19

Babalola was busy mapping out the Holiday Club’s future—including creating a photography and film school for 16 to 25 year olds—when the world was overturned by the novel coronavirus pandemic. Babalola’s immediate response: checking on the welfare of the kids in her program.

“It was important for me to see how these kids were handling things, so for the first three weeks I just supported them by helping them with homework and just being a member of their extended family,” says Babalola.

Once she ensured her students were OK, she turned her attention back to the Holiday Club, which was forced to pivot to a more online-focused curriculum, relying heavily on Zoom, WhatsApp, and Google Sheets and Docs. She also updated her Squarespace website with new content, which Babalola credits with helping the organization to grow organically. The site saw an uptick in activity from not only local Londoners, but also from youth around the world, including those in Brazil, South Africa, and Nigeria who expressed interest in and signed up for the Holiday Club’s programming.

Despite some challenges at first—including getting everyone online at the right time and sending everyone the correct links to download—everything fell into place. Going online offered the ability to meet more often without having to worry about finding a location in which to do so. It also gave the Holiday Club a chance to use their older students as ambassadors to help acclimate younger participants and make sure they were on time for programming. And while not every program was Zoom-friendly—the film group was able to write and plan, but not shoot—students were able to pull off full-length musical and theater productions online.

Babalola says that there were three things that helped her succeed in pivoting to an online model: understanding her target audience, which meant speaking with the kids in the program to find out their needs and how they were responding to the time period; choosing the direction of the organization’s programming based on the needs assessed; and learning how best to use the online platforms to add value.

screenshot of Holiday Club website
Promoting the new photography and film course on the website. | Photo of student by Dara Phillips

The Path Forward

In addition to the aforementioned film and photography school (which is now being launched in August as an online course), Babalola had future plans to add more programming and also start fundraising to build a youth center, which would offer kids a permanent multifunctional space to meet. She originally wasn’t going to start the campaign for at least another year, but she says that COVID-19 highlighted how much the organization needed its own location to operate more efficiently. In June, she went ahead and launched a GoFundMe to raise £20,000 for the youth center.

Overall, Babalola’s hope is simply to help and support the next generation—and to give them the guidance that her classmates didn’t have access to back when she was in high school. “I just want them to feel that their experience was valuable, and that they learned something about themselves,” she says. “It’s really all just to help and support them.”